As messages go, those coming out of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle over the past seven days have been decidedly mixed.
On Wednesday last week, the “knackered” queen canceled an important trip to Northern Ireland at the last minute and was dramatically admitted to the hospital (a fact which her aides tried and failed to cover up). She then missed church on Sunday and has failed to even walk her beloved dogs for the past week as she rested up in the wake of the mystery health situation.
On Tuesday, things became truly surreal; all morning her aides insisted there was no change to her scheduled keynote attendance at the Cop26 climate summit which begins on Monday 1 November.
Rumors about the true state of her health were intensifying when, suddenly, photographs were being handed out of the queen as she greeted a new ambassador via video link at Buckingham Palace.
The new ambassador was from South Korea but the steely image control by the sovereign—no video, multiple photos of the hale and hearty queen grinning as broadly as if she had won the lotto—seemed to owe more to the North Korean playbook.
The gambit worked. Social media was awash with hard-assed queen commentary.
But just a few hours later, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, the façade came tumbling down when it was dramatically announced that the queen would not, after all, be attending the Cop26 climate summit. Following “advice” from unspecified quarters, she was “regretfully” not attending. There wouldn’t even be a live video link, although a pre-recorded address would be made (more steely control of the presentation).
What did all this mean? On Wednesday morning, British airwaves were full of speculation but little actual news. Jonny Dymond, the BBC’s well-briefed royal reporter, told flagship Radio 4 program Today that his impression was that the queen would be undertaking “less travel around the U.K.” going forward.
Roya Nikkhah, royal correspondent for The Sunday Times told the same program something similar, saying, “I think there will be a reassessment and possibly a slight gear change in the kind of work the queen does, the distances she travels. I think there will be a gear change…I think there will be a constant review going forwards now.”
The queen’s office at Buckingham Palace declined to comment on speculation that the queen might slow down her schedule.
While the palace is famously well prepared for the queen’s death, with Operation London Bridge ready to swing into action at the stroke of a pen, they seem less sure-footed when it comes to handling the frequent precursor to death: failing health.
It is entirely understandable that the palace does not want to provide a running commentary on the queen’s medical issues. But the reality is that a series of entirely predictable concerns over a 95-year-old woman’s health has now had the unfortunate effect of completely overshadowing the build-up to Cop26, the most important climate change summit held to date. The letdown of the queen not attending means a great deal of air has gone out of the Cop26 balloon, despite briefings she would be working hard behind the scenes to make sure the event is a success.
It’s worth considering what Cop26 might have looked like in an alternate universe, where the queen had either abdicated or officially retired and allowed Charles to establish a formal regency or to call himself king.
Charles, who is absolutely passionate about climate change and has been for decades, probably would have been banging the drum for (and banging on about) Cop26 for months.
Dumfries House, his foundation’s base in Scotland, which is under an hour by car from the Glasgow summit, might have been turned over to visiting heads of state or co-opted for a series of public-facing idea-based fringe events or exhibits.
But we shall never know because, by maintaining that the queen was going to be able to merrily make an 800-mile round trip and breeze into a massive gathering of world leaders scattering stardust, the palace has relegated Charles, yet again, into a junior, supporting role. Doing too much, being too enthusiastic, would have risked him being seen as attempting to usurp his mother’s position.
Charles is not, currently, a wildly popular figure with the British public in general. Opinion polls have consistently demonstrated that the public would rather see Prince William ascend the throne in his place. But that’s not how a constitutional monarchy works and that fantasy is not going to happen.
As bizarre as the concept of King Charles feels right now, the public will get used to it, and Charles may do a decent job. He may even be liked, even if he is fated to never inspire quite the same love and devotion as his mother.
Charles will be the next monarch. He’s already halfway there; he was busy doing investitures on Wednesday for example. But the queen does not yet want to stand down and let Charles have his shot starting from now.
The queen’s dogmatic insistence that she will never abdicate stems, as is well known, from the abdication crisis of 1936 when her uncle, Edward VIII gave up the throne to marry Wallis Simpson.
Those events did indeed plunge the monarchy into uncertainty and chaos. But Edward had been on the throne for fewer than 11 months and was in perfect health when he abandoned his duty. He was 42—not 95. There is no similarity to a putative scenario in which the queen were to abdicate now, other than the word “abdicate.” It’s unlikely too many people would have traumatic flashbacks to 1936 in the event of it happening.
But the queen is determined to stay on the throne until the day she dies, and there really is no one who can have the difficult discussion with her about stepping aside who she would listen to.
Her private secretary, Edward Young, wouldn’t dream of proposing such a thing. His predecessor, Christopher Geidt, who had a far closer relationship with the queen, and was originally picked by her with the unspoken intention he would see out her reign, might just have been able to raise the issue. But he is out of the picture these days, spending more time on his sheep farm in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands after losing a power struggle with Prince Charles in 2017.
The complications and conflicts of interest for Charles in talking to his mother about stepping down in his favor are not hard to imagine. “I think it would be very difficult for Charles to talk to her about this,” Charles’ biographer Penny Junor told The Daily Beast. “She is really, really against abdication. She grew up believing it to be the absolute bogey man. There is a mental resistance to it.
“He does do a lot already, but I do think the time maybe has come for Charles to be given more of a role. But that’s a very difficult conversation to have, and it’s doubtful if there is anyone who could have that conversation with her without her replying, ‘Nonsense.’”
On her 21st birthday, in a radio address, Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, told the world: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
The royal family website still hosts the text of this speech, with this key paragraph prominently displayed at the top.
As she enters the final years of her life, there is a compelling case to be made that the best thing Queen Elizabeth could do would be to hand the reins over to her son. Otherwise, as happened with Prince Philip until he finally retired, every missed event, every uneven step, every production of a walking stick will become a morbid dissection of her health, entirely overshadowing the duty at hand.